Concerns About (and Tips for) Speaking About Neuroscience


Many coaches and trainers are finding that they want to bring neuroscience into their practices, either as a way to enroll individuals or organizations or as a methodology in coaching or organizational work. Here’s some important context and background, as well as a few tips for doing this credibly and well.

  1. Neuroscience is a fairly new and evolving field. The field itself was officially “born” in 1964, with the first freestanding department of neuroscience at the University of California, Irvine (Harvard followed a couple of years later). As technology develops and improves, and as we have more experimental data, things we once thought we “knew” about the brain are becoming more finely tuned and even changing in fundamental ways.
  2. Scientific experiments often have an agenda. Sad to say, because we tend to think of science as the pursuit of pure knowledge and truth. But there are agendas we need to be aware of, and these agendas can create what is known as “the file drawer problem.” That is, research that does not validate what the researchers are looking for ends up in the file drawer. For example, if fifty studies say anti-depressants don’t work any better than placebos, with 10 saying they do, the fifty can end up shelved while the ten get published.
  3. There is a huge “replication issue” in science. The scientific community knows this well, but it is not as well-known by the general population. That is, many new “discoveries” about the brain (and this is true in other areas of science as well) may or may not be able to be replicated by other researchers. And, distressingly, often they simply aren’t. Part of the issue with this is that it is much easier to get funded and published when you are the first to discover something, and harder (and much less sexy) to be the one who says, yeah, she was right or wrong, the brain does/doesn’t work that way. Also see point #2 about the agenda.  
  4. The brain is a system. It’s harder and much more complex to speak about the brain as a system than it is to say this or that area “does” this or that. However, as we learn more and more about how things work, this awareness is becoming more and more core to our understanding. Specific areas of the brain may or may not participate in certain responses, depending on the person and the circumstances.

THEREFORE what do we do?

  1. Use caveats and modifiers in your speech. Practice saying things like:
    • There is some evidence for…..
    • This brain area may participate in…..
    • There are some studies indicating…..
    • This area may be activated when…..
  2. Be suspicious of people who don’t use modifiers when speaking about the brain. Anyone who speaks in absolutes (for example, saying something like “the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain”) may not be up to date on the current research and thinking about the brain. If you have been accustomed to speaking this way, see point #1 above!
  3. If speaking about neuroscience is key in your practice, be sure to stay up to speed on current developments. This means both doing your best to track what is happening in the neuroscience world (this is almost impossible, by the way, because it such an evolving field) and double-checking current research before you speak about or present a key concept.

    Here are some generally accurate and accessible resources you can follow that will help you stay clued in:

Another excellent idea is to use the search engine Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com) instead of your regular search engine. Google Scholar will pull up the actual research studies rather than popular articles. When exploring these studies, here are a few things to look for:

  • How recent is the study? Generally (but not always) the more contemporary, the better.
  • How many citations? This shows how reputable other researchers find this study. Of course, for newer research, this may be low, so again, this is not an absolute.
  • What are the conclusions—what did the researchers find?
  • If conclusion seems intuitively “off” given other things you know, who were the subjects, how was the research conducted? For example, lots of research is done on undergrads in universities. The brain is still developing at this age, so conclusions may be shaped by this fact without the researchers necessarily acknowledging it. Or the study may be been done on a very small sample or a certain population.

And finally, take everything with a grain of salt. Don’t assume one study or expert’s claim is THE truth in the area. It’s often important for both credibility and true understanding to go layer deeper and search for both validating studies as well as if there is any refutation.


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Join us for our exciting and practical year-long Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program. Applied neuroscience linked to a powerful model of human effectiveness. Learning groups start in October 2021 and January 2022.

Are you caught in a relational pyramid scheme?

In some family systems, there can be a feeling that the children “owe” something to the parents. This manifests not only later in life when parents need advocacy and/or care, but even earlier, when both children and parents feel that the child’s role is to pay attention to, support, comfort or even guide the parents. (We see this very often when the parent has high levels of narcissism or borderline personality, but that’s not necessarily a requirement.)

On an energetic level, I was recently pondering this dynamic (very present in my own life) with a colleague. Both of us were frustrated by the fact that one or both of our parents felt we owed them but hadn’t provided much love, care and attention to us in childhood or later. Where was this “owing” feeling coming from when they really hadn’t done their part as parents? Was it just that they had a personality type that feels the world owes them?

That may be a large part of it, but another idea came to us. Perhaps we were being asked to be the latest layer in what we could think of as a relational pyramid scheme. Maybe the feeling of being owed was similar to the next layer above in Bernie Madoff’s structure. In our own examples, our parents had “paid” their own parents with attention, care, prioritization, etc., even when it was not in alignment with their own soul path, desire, or even mental health.

No wonder—on an energetic level—they feel “owed.” Just like the higher levels in a pyramid scheme, they paid in, expecting a return from the next layer down. One example from my own life happened when I married my first husband. My mother jumped in uninvited to manage many aspects of the wedding. I felt like I was standing in front of a steamroller on a mission, and at the time (I was only 23) like I had little choice in the matter of her opinions and desires. My dysfunctional strategy was to simply let her decide a lot of it and focus on things like my dress, which I bought out of town on my own. I found out later that her own mother (by all accounts a very “difficult” woman) had ruled my mom’s wedding to my dad with an iron fist, leaving my mom little choice about anything. And so, one perspective is that my mom had paid then, and so was owed a wedding. I honestly think she felt that way, although probably not on a conscious level.

But—and we have ample evidence of this in today’s world—pyramid schemes always fail at some point. In terms of finance they are not mathematically sustainable (you have to keep recruiting new investors and at some point you max this out and it falls apart). In terms of a relational pyramid scheme, the risk is that the bottom row wakes up. As many of us in this generation focus more on leading lives where we care both for our families and ourselves, and are no longer willing to do things that feel overly burdensome and/or out of alignment, we may see some of these pyramids breaking apart. This isn’t easy, because it requires saying to your “upline” (your parents) that you aren’t going to spend so much energy devoting yourself to their happiness, but rather, invest more in yourself and your current family. It takes guts to say, no, I don’t owe you.

Awake and aware parents will actually encourage and support this. They know the next generation does not owe them, no matter what they gave to the previous or even, legitimately to their own kids. And these are the parents where love, care and ongoing support and connection feel life-giving, reciprocal, and easy.

But parents who are still caught in their own distorted reality may get very upset and tell you that you are betraying them or the family if you stop giving as much to them. They may label you as selfish, ungrateful, unkind. They may even disown you or cut you off somehow. None of this feels good, but it can also be freeing to realize you no longer have to pay a debt that was never really yours in the first place.

I am reminded of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s famous words on children:

Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

     You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
     You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

From The Prophet, 1923

Sharpening Your Knife

I had an interesting realization about my Task Positive Network (TPN) today. This is the network of the brain that is activated when we are actively paying attention, focusing on the task at hand, using short-term memory, and in the present moment. It’s associated with a form of “flow state” and much of the time, we’re happier when we are using this network. It’s anti-correlated with the Default Mode Network (DMN), which, while it can take us into a spiral of rumination and anxiety, also has its own gifts and benefits. One is, as I will explain in more detail below, the ability to give us a sort of mental reboot when we need it. (For more on the two networks, see The Power of Dreaming, the Power of Action, and Putting the Wizards to Work in this blog.)

I was working away on notes for a class I teach to my most advanced students (this month it is all about gender differences in the brain). Pulling things together from a whole slew of scientific articles, and making some sort of sense out of it all is one of the most interesting and cognitively demanding things I do. I love it. Until I don’t. In pondering why this is and what is happening, I came up with a metaphor. For me, using my TPN is like sculpting with a really well-honed knife. It’s so fun carving here and carving there, watching something cool emerge. But at some point, the knife gets dull and I just can’t shape what I want to shape any longer. It doesn’t matter that I have a deadline, it doesn’t matter that I have the time to do it, it doesn’t even matter that I am enjoying the work. I just “can’t even,” as the youngsters say.

That happened to me today about 3 hours in. I was having a blast, so intrigued by what I was reading, making a table to explain things, pulling out interesting points. It was all making sense and I was flying along. And then–my knife was dull. I wanted to keep carving. I really did. I just couldn’t. Nothing was coming together in a way that made sense and I was having trouble holding things in my short-term memory. My TPN was done.

So I watched a silly YouTube video for a while, took a short nap, got something to drink, and wandered aimlessly around my house annoying the cats. That break with nothing particular to focus on activated my DMN, the network that revs up immediately when we stop focusing in the present moment and on the task at hand. I think of it as the knife sharpener, the time out. Stop trying to carve with a dull knife, I told myself, you know that isn’t how you get sharp again. And indeed, this little break sharpened my knife enough to finish the last few pages and wrap it up.

I love neuroscience. Without this understanding of these two networks, I might have tried to push through with my dull knife of a brain (because again, I was enjoying the work) or I might have thought I wasn’t actually smart enough to pull it all together (thus leading to a not very pleasant internal conversation). Instead, the cats got some extra attention and the project ultimately got completed with a nice freshly sharpened knife. (And hey, the knife was even sharp enough to write this blog!)

7 Keys to Neuroplasticity in Coaching

Neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to grow and change–is fundamental to the power and possibility of coaching. As coaches, we help our clients recognize old, unhelpful patterns and “rewire” our systems for the sort of personal and professional accomplishments, impact and fulfillment they desire. As coaches, there are (at least) seven key things critical for coaching to have a maximum impact. Many of these you may already be doing as a coach, others you may want to bring into a more intentional focus in order to make your coaching even likelier to help your clients grow and change.

1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others can create fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. Additionally, when we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Personal Relevance

The dragon we know is better than the dragon we don’t know. ~ Chinese Proverb

Learning involves change, and change, by definition, involves risk, so it is always easier to stay where we are than to risk what we don’t know and haven’t yet experienced. All change begins with a desire for something, and this desire must be bigger than the “dragon we don’t know.” Older neural pathways will continue to easily pull us towards old behaviors, beliefs and actions (even if they don’t serve) until the desire for something else becomes strong enough to disrupt the pattern. In coaching, we need to be sure that our clients have a chance to get in touch with (or create) the powerful emotional relevance necessary for learning and change to occur.

3. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring or to which we are habituated. Parts of the brain are constantly taking in everything in our environments and cuing us to notice that which is new—releasing neurotransmitters in the brain that help us focus.

4. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters, including brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary for neuronal growth and connections. Designing a distraction-free space for the coaching, encouraging clients to check in with the interoceptive sensations their bodies, and simply asking good, thoughtful powerful questions all contribute to more presence in the coaching. (It’s also interesting to note that many studies have linked traditional meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness and density of gray matter in key areas of the brain.)

5. Practice/Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

6. Play, Humor, Movement

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy. It is also a place we can tap into the wisdom of the body.

Additionally, in order to make mistakes without perfectionism or shame, we need to step into a place of playfulness and even humor. Being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made (and learned from) in a safe environment.

7. Rest

The brain needs time to process and reflect on learning, and can only take so much stimulation and continue optimal function. Additionally, spacing things out over more than one day allows the integrating and clearing aspects of sleep to be activated. With adequate REM sleep, neural connections are retraced (cementing in important learning), and unnecessary input from the day is cleared, allowing space for new learning.

All these factors are cumulative in nature. In other words, the more the better. As a coach, please take a moment to celebrate the keys you do well, knowing you are not only doing good coaching, you are having a powerful impact on your client’s brain. And if there are one or two you could make more intentional, you may find your coaching has even more impact!

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Join us for our exciting and practical year-long Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program. Applied neuroscience linked to a powerful model of human effectiveness. Learning groups start in October 2021 and January 2022.

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Some references:

Amanda Blake Your Body is Your Brain, available on Amazon

Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Using Mindfulness to Change the Brain https://goo.gl/yl6YAG

Neuroscience Backs What Great Leaders Know: To Succeed, Embrace Your Mistakes

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/10/20/humor-neuroplasticity-and-the-power-to-change-your-mind/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4991054/

How sleep clears the brain. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain

Yes, Less IS Indeed More

I recently had a couple of things happen that made me think of the famous Jam Study in consumer marketing. One, I got asked to be part of a 1000 presenter summit. No, I’m not kidding. 1000 presenters. (I declined.) And then I clicked on another summit on a health topic I am interested in and Day One had over 25 presenters and topics. And that was just Day One! Yikes! I really really wanted this information, but just looking at the options made me exhausted. I deleted the email.

As more and more entrepreneurs and organizations jump on the fill-in-the-blank-summit bandwagon, I think they’d do well to consider the Jam Study. If you’re not familiar with the Jam Study, it basically is a strong argument that less is definitely more–at least when it comes to sales. The study, conducted at a Bay-area supermarket in 2000 by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on display when the number of jams available was reduced from 24 to 6. Turns out we get overwhelmed by choosing between kiwi-mango and berry-apricot and persimmon-apple etc., no matter how well they may have tested in market research. People just walked away.

There are a few key factors that influence this:

1) If we don’t know what we are comparing. If I have to choose between twenty-five unknown speakers talking on a subject I know little about, it’s like trying to choose between twenty-five new jam flavors. I am honestly stymied. If I know all 25 AND know the subject, it will be easier to make a choice. I’ve tasted the jam.

2) If I want to make an easy, quick choice. Even if I’m familiar with the jam (or speakers, in this case), twenty-five is a lot to sort through (much less 1000!) when I have half an hour to watch a presentation. I kind of want to grab and go and will probably tune out because it’s too darn much work to decide.

3) When I don’t know what I really want. In terms of the health summit, I don’t know enough about the issue to discern if I want the folks that are treating it with neuro-feedback or the ones researching more effective diagnostic testing. Maybe this is on me to educate myself more, but it does point to a barrier for new folks coming into the conversation in any topic area.

4) Guilt. Ok, no big deal if I buy a jar of jam that I end up not eating (and just a reminder, with too many choices, people didn’t). But if I buy a summit with 100-200-1000 speakers and I just don’t get around to watching more than a couple, what a waste. For many people, that’s a stressful and unpleasant feeling. (Some of us actually even feel that way about jam.)

So here’s my advice. If you want to do a summit, more power to you. But curate it. Getting 1000 people to present and market and share with you all their mailing lists may seem like a great way make a lot of money, but is it really the highest quality, does it really serve the consumer, and ultimately, do you sell the most jam? I have also had the absolute privilege of being involved with a number of carefully crafted, well-thought-out, limited summits where the participants aren’t overwhelmed with every choice in the book. Call those the six-jam summits. They are clear, compelling and digestible, and tend to have ongoing growth year over year and loyal, lasting supporters.

If you’d like to know more about the Jam Study itself, you can check out this recent article: https://digitalwellbeing.org/the-jam-study-strikes-back-when-less-choice-does-mean-more-sales/.




Your Brain Remotely

I recently had the chance to speak with Emma El-Karout, the founder One Circle, a community of virtual HR consultants, about the challenges to the brain when working remotely and/or leading remote teams. Here are some ideas that came out of that conversation.

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What’s exciting about remote work in terms of the brain?

Aside from the fact that more remote work does seem to be the wave of the future, there are definitely at least a couple of advantages from a brain perspective. One, the vast creativity of being able to draw on a global pool and the varied perspectives and talents that come with that. And two, the reduction of stress from team members being able to have more control over their work environment (and lack of commute). For example, some of us find noisy co-workers distracting and even stressful, and the ability to work in the quiet of our own homes is a blessed relief. Being able to get more sleep and have more time with family because you have gained hours in your day also tends to reduce stress.

What’s challenging about remote work in terms of the brain?

I think there are some general challenges, communication challenges, and productivity/focus challenges. In this blog, I am going to look at the general challenges with some ideas about what to do–in a later blog I’ll address communication and productivity (in the meantime, I’ll share a link to my blog on why video chat is not the same as real life). Here are a few general issues that seem to be particularly challenging:

1) Lack of informal social time — this relates to connection as well as the “meeting after the meeting.” For remote teams, team time tends to be focused on efficiency and productivity. And this makes sense because when we are not being fed in terms of social connections, we tend to want to be done with things and get off the call or video conference.

This of course happens IRL (In Real Life) as well, but in-person, we generally have even a minute or two to say hi, or “sheesh, what a day,” or ask someone how their weekend was, or provide or get a quick clarification on a memo. We walk down the hallway or ride in an elevator together–and often ideas and information are shared as well as what we might think of as the normal “social grease” of how are you and hey what’s up? And IRL, for most people it doesn’t feel like extra time–I think this may be largely in part because we are often doing something else “productive” while we are connecting. We’re getting coffee, moving from one place to another, making copies, even just waiting for everyone to arrive at the meeting and shuffle their papers. Chatting and being human together doesn’t then feel like an extra task.

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Take some of the money you’re saving by having folks work remotely and invest in creating and supporting strategies for informal connection (company parenting groups, game tournaments, etc.) This will not only provide avenues for human connection, it also shows that the company understands this is important, even–and perhaps especially–in a virtual environment.
  • Start all meetings with a check-in that is about the human being, not the human doing. For example, what sort of weather are you today? What is one thing you did this weekend that filled your cup? What’s one non-work thing that is on your mind today? It’s important to know that if you are the leader, you don’t have to fix or change anything–it’s enough that people just get a chance to be there as their full selves.

2) Feeling isolated (this is of course stronger if remote is not the norm in company). We are social, tribal beings by nature. According to anthropologist Jared Diamond, for about 95% of human history we moved and worked in small kin groups. Being so separate is relatively new to us as humans, and much of who were are at our core is modulated by our core need to belong. Loneliness is not just an emotional state, it is actually processed more like hunger–as a biological drive. And while working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean we feel lonely, being physically together can provide some natural protection from it.

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Stay tuned in to how your team is doing emotionally. Again, as mentioned above, you need to check in with the human being, not just the human doing. If this is not your skillset, have your company bring in training on coaching skills for managers so you can learn how to do this easily (it’s really not so hard).
  • One way to make personal connection easier with individual team members is to suggest (if possible) that you each go for a walk during a regular touch-base. Being in motion (especially outside) relaxes the brain and it can be easier to both ask and be asked the “how are you really doing?” questions.
  • AND/OR–take some of the money you are saving and make sure your team has coaches. There are so many benefits to coaching in terms of creativity, contribution, etc., and it can also help the person recognize and be proactive about their own needs and emotional state.

3) We’re simply less creative and efficient when we are on our own. Our brains want to conserve energy as much as possible (a biological principle called economy of action). Being with others in person makes our brains process more efficiently. We regulate our own emotions better, get more creative ideas, and generally feel calmer when we are with others (unless, of course, the others are the source of your stress).

ADVICE for LEADERS:

  • Do make time/budget for real-life gatherings. One of my colleagues said that when she worked with remote teams at IBM years ago, they found that one IRL meeting gave them 3-6 months of productive remote work.
  • Since brains process less efficiently, understand that people may have less bandwidth, so keep meetings shorter and encourage personal “reset time.” Emma El-Karout shared with me that her team has a norm of working 90 minutes and then taking 20 off to do something non-work related.
  • Be even more intentional about using “out of the box” creative strategies. For example, ask people to use metaphor, to draw a doodle, to close their eyes, breathe, and say the first image that comes to them. What can happen naturally when we are together may need a bit of priming in the virtual space.

Thanks again to Emma at One Circle for inspiring these thoughts. To see our interview, please check back after June 18.

Top Four Reasons Video Chat is NOT the Same as Real Life

(and is seriously wearing us out)

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Here we are, in the spring of 2020, in an unprecedented time of “social isolation.” Many have turned to Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other video chatting platforms to connect with individuals and groups. After the initial novelty and even excitement wore off for what seemed like it might be an amazing solution, many of us started realizing that a video-based meeting or training was sometimes waaaaay more exhausting than an in-person one, and a video-based “happy hour” gathering just wasn’t making us feel the connection we are longing for. We started wondering why video connection could feel a bit like eating Doritos instead of a nice full meal. So here are a few reasons why this might be:

1) We are sensual beings. We take in information from ALL our senses. On virtual chats, we have two of our senses activated, sight and sound, but not the others, especially smell and touch. We may not realize it, but smell plays a huge role in our emotional connection and processing. Sometimes we are aware of a certain smell (for example, my dad smoked a pipe when I was very small, and I am generally flooded with a sense of warmth and even connection when I encounter the scent of pipe tobacco), but often it may be smells we aren’t even aware of. Just like we all know “dogs smell fear,” humans have been shown to have a physiological response to the chemicals present in anxiety[1] even if there is no discernable odor.

And of course, we are probably more aware that we long to touch each other. Touch is another powerful way we communicate—and again, we are often not even aware that (or how much) we are doing so.[2] We touch to emphasize a point, to offer comfort, to say hello. And in doing so, we pick up and transmit emotional states. In fact, according to the Psychology Today article cited below, “touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.”

So in essence, video chatting cuts us off from two key ways we process our connection and knowledge of each other. That tends to make our brains feel less at ease, as they work harder to help us feel like we get what’s going on, which is of course, also more tiring.

2) The technology used in video platforms creates a somewhat artificial and distorted world. How many of us have struggled with where to look when we are on a call? It feels sort of odd to look at the camera, but that is the only way others feel like you are looking at them. If you DO try to look at the other person, it looks to them like you are looking somewhere else. However we do it, the felt sense of making eye contact is simply impossible. Information from another person’s eyes is dominantly processed in our right hemispheres, which is a part of the brain critical for a felt sense of empathy, creating meaning, and many of the ways we emotionally connect with each other and the world. Because this is so critical for understanding, our brains feel like we should be able to have it and we keep trying to find it. It’s like running a constant error message. Again, exhausting.

According to Why Zoom is Terrible (NYT, April 29, 2020) [3] the other distortions are “the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized (which) introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”

3) We are primed to make ourselves the primary focus of attention. Who hasn’t said to themselves or another lately that they aren’t used to looking at themselves so dammed much? And yet, it is hard to pull our eyes away from that image. This is probably NOT that we are all becoming terrible narcissists, but more related to our fundamental “prime directive” of survival. In the hierarchy of attention, we simply tend to think about ourselves first.[4] This is a key way we stay safe and make sure we survive. When faced with images of ourselves it is difficult for our brains to pull away and focus attention somewhere else. There is a twofold impact on our energy to this – one is that it simply takes more energy to put our attention somewhere else when our own moving image is in front of us. The other is that when we do have our attention on ourselves, we are also primed to assess and want to correct, which results in a sort of multi-tasking during a meeting or gathering. (“Why did I wear that shirt? Man, I look tired. What the heck is my hair doing? etc.) Keeping our focus and attention on what is going on and NOT our own assessment of ourselves takes extra energy.

4) It just honestly takes more focus. In a normal meeting or gathering, nobody stares at each other intently for an hour or more. Our minds wander, we look around the room, in social situations we break off for tête-à-têtes or into smaller sub-groups. (For example, I recently did a virtual Easter gathering with my extended family, and there we all were, taking turns talking. This would never happen in real life. We tend to peel off into smaller groups based on interest. The three family computer geeks often put their heads together, speaking their own language, I like to hang out with my nieces talking fashion or getting updated on their lives, the older folks talk politics or current events.) Video platforms keep us more in present focus, especially when we are on camera. This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, it just gets tiring to keep our focus brain network online without a break. I’m not taking about checking your phone while you’re in a meeting, but for all the reasons mentioned above, we are less relaxed because additional channels for processing information and emotions are not available.

So what do we do? Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter:

  • It’s not the same and that’s ok. I think the overall answer is not to expect that video chatting will be the same as being in person. It’s not. It’s not as fulfilling. Think of it as a snack, not a meal. Nothing wrong with Doritos, you just can’t live on them. So this is a time we need to find all the other ways we can to fill our tanks.
  • Limit the number of people in social video gatherings. In contrast to the large family Easter event, I have a regular weekly chat with four other wonderful women in Los Angeles, even though I live in Santa Fe. (I sometimes call it the New Mexico-California Friendship Exchange.) With five people, we can actually talk and hear from each other. I look forward to these evenings and value that the five of us have gotten even closer in this time.
  • Just use the phone, especially one to one. On the phone, our voices are in each other’s ears, which feels more intimate. Our visual field is not concerned with ourselves, and we can go into more of a soft-focus visual state which is less exhausting.
  • Don’t do back to back video meetings if you can help it, and pay attention to how many you can manage in a day. My exhaustion rate is about 3 hours MAX, and I can’t do that every day. Take video-free days if you can for recovery.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself. It IS more tiring to work and connect this way. You’re not a weenie or a slacker. Your brain is responding as best you can to an extraordinary situation, and in addition to the extra effort and attention video calls demand, there are many other stresses having an impact. Be kind to yourself and others. This is hard.

Oh, and you might want to hide your own image on the video chat!

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[1] See https://www.livescience.com/24578-humans-smell-fear.html for an example of one study. There have been many additional studies (on humans) looking at the smell of fear, disgust, and other emotions.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201303/the-power-touch

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR36bmNXk-JWHRJadfkPaDGv8hVSL9w4Qy9wC0vkvNRjIrztttSaLRLQa9Y

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201801/why-are-you-always-thinking-about-yourself

 

Top Ten Reasons You (and Your Organization) Need Coaching More Than Ever Right Now

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By Ann Betz and William Arruda

My friend, business genius William Arruda and I sat down recently to talk about why coaching matters so much–even, perhaps MORE–during this Covid-19 crisis. Here are the top ten reasons we came up with:

  1. Many tools and techniques of professional coaching are scientifically proven to reduce stress. When we are stressed, it is much more difficult to have empathy, think creatively, control impulses, and make effective plans. When stress is reduced through coaching, people have more access to creativity, empathy, and resilience, all of which are critical right now.
  2. Coaching helps people process what is going on. This is an unprecedented time—the very fact that we have little to compare it to makes it exceptionally difficult to process and make sense of. Without processing during the time we are in the experience, we run a high probability of either crashing when it is over, or sublimating our worry, fear and stress into health issues, low energy, and other negative impacts. When we notice and allow our true feelings and concerns, we move the energy through and stay steadier and more able to cope both during and after. Many people need the support of coaching in order to do this effectively.
  3. Coaching helps people find their own resilience and capacity, even when we can’t change the external landscape. Any coach worth their salt knows to focus on the client, not the issue. When people are what we might call, “returned to themselves” through coaching, they see more possibility and find more internal resilience. This restores some sense of control in what feels like an uncontrollable world.
  4. The small amount invested in coaching during a crisis will pay off in terms of larger gains. The companies and individuals that will get through this time are those that maintain a fair amount of calm center, limit the toxic impact of stress, are flexible and agile, and truly “think outside the box.” Given the impact of the circumstances we find ourselves in, it is highly unlikely that people will find their way there without the kind of support coaching provides.
  5. Giving managers and leaders coaching provides a noticeable ripple effect. Research shows that leaders have a potent impact on the “weather” of their organization. When they are calm, emotionally regulated, thoughtful, and patient, those around them feel more able to respond more thoughtfully as well. (Same is true for parents and children.)
  6. This will most likely lead to permanent changes for individuals and orgs. We know coaching is one of the most effective ways to help people navigate change. We’re not going back to “business as usual” after this. Coaching helps us know and express our own needs, desires and boundaries as things change so we can be active “co-creators” in what is to come.
  7. It is more critical than ever to retain and develop top talent. We’re going to need extraordinary thinking and performance to help any enterprise—whether it is a business, a school, or even a family—get through this. As things are pointing to different structures in how we do business, all enterprises are going to need to rely more on multiple layers of leadership. Coaching helps develop people’s leadership strengths and confidence, and is also a proven retention strategy.
  8. Coaches help people get unstuck and move out of fixed patterns or mindsets. Surviving and thriving in this time requires an adaptable brain that can respond with flexibility and creativity, while still being thoughtful and applying logic. Coaching helps people identify limiting beliefs and move into more open and responsive mindsets.
  9. People are thinking about purpose and meaning as a result of this crisis. Without support in terms of surfacing and focusing on questions of meaning, life purpose, and important values, all too often the things we learn in crisis are lost. Coaching can help us powerfully reflect on what we are learning about ourselves.
  10. People will be using this opportunity to make major life and work changes and will need a coach to help navigate this change. Our old patterns and habits are well-wired into our brains. Making real change is disruptive to the system, and we need support to make major changes. Coaching is all about the reflection-action-reflection cycle of learning. A coach helps us identify what we want, try some things to put it into action, reflect on what we learned, and then continue this positive cycle as we move into new ways of being and therefore new results in our lives.

 

Ann Betz consults on the science of coaching for the ICF education department, and served as provocateur for the online learning ICF Advance in 2018 and will again in 2020. She is the author of This Is Your Brain on Coaching, the science of the ICF competencies, and has been a professional coach since 2001. She is the co-founder of BEabove Leadership, offering advanced coach training on neuroscience for the experienced and curious coach. She is a sought-after international speaker on the intersection of neuroscience, coaching, and human development, and works with many global brands and coaching organizations.

William Arruda is an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and the world’s leading authority on the topic of personal branding. He’s the bestselling author of the definitive books on the topic: Career Distinction and Ditch. Dare. Do! His latest book, Digital YOU helps readers translate their real-world brands for the virtual world. William is the CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer) of Reach Personal Branding and the co-founder of CareerBlast.TV – a personal and digital branding video learning platform for innovative organizations. His products have been used by over a million people across the globe. William is honored to work with many of the world’s most revered brands, including 20% of the Fortune 100. He regularly shares his thoughts on workplace trends and branding in his Forbes column. In 2015, he was awarded the ICF Chair’s Award for his contributions to the field of coaching.

 

 

Non-Coaching Ways to Help Yourself and Others Manage Stress


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Whether or not you are a professional coach, we all need ways sometimes to manage our own stress, whether it is because we need to feel what I call “regulated” in order to support others, or simply because we can’t focus or move forward due to feeling overwhelmed. Additionally, many of us support other people (friends, family, team members etc.) in roles other than as coaches. And even if we are coaches, there are also times and relationships where we want and need to show up less formally but still be helpful.

Here are some scientifically validated ways to help manage stress in ourselves and others while not wearing an official “coach” hat. In order of effectiveness, we have:

1. Suppression (not effective)

Although tempting, suppressing emotions is not an effective strategy. It has been linked to depression, and most experts agree that suppressed emotions find ways to “leak out” when not acknowledged and addressed in some way. We also tend to think that we can hide our emotions from others, but research shows that sitting next to someone who is upset and suppressing will raise your blood pressure (and the suppressor’s as well).

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Spend some time in reflection—journaling, on a walk, etc. Ask yourself if you are suppressing anything (sometimes a natural response to “getting through the day”).

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Notice if they are consistently saying “it’s all good,” and/or deflecting their natural feelings. If you can find a quiet, private time to check in, try one or more of the strategies below.

2. Naming the emotion

Research shows that simply naming an emotion reduces activity in the limbic regions. This is certainly the simplest and easiest way to manage our stress, although some people may need to build this muscle by expanding their emotional vocabulary and practicing either talking about how they really feel or at a minimum writing it down. (NOTE: as you are expressing how you feel, be sure that you don’t “amp it up.” Keep the venting to a minimum and move on to another strategy.)

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Identify and name how you really feel—it often helps to write it down.
  • Find someone to talk to who is nonjudgmental and won’t collude with you.
  • Short venting (1 to 3 minutes) to self or another.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask how they really feel, then listen and ask a couple of additional questions, such as:
    • What’s the impact of that?
    • What’s hard right now?
  • Let them really vent (1 to 3 minutes) – make it a game, tell them you are setting a timer and you want them to go for it.
  • Resist the natural human urge to want to offer solutions, even though you may feel uncomfortable with not being able to fix it for them.

3. Controlling the Environment

This is probably the most effective strategy – nothing is better than actually removing the source of stress – however, it ranks low on the list because it is only effective in those cases where it is possible to do so. We can’t control everyone and everything in our lives, and attempting to will only create a net increase in stress. Still, where possible, this works.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Ask yourself what you can change or control about the situation.
  • If you have a friend or family member who is a good listener, brainstorm with them, and be open to changes you haven’t thought of or think are impossible.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask them what they can change or control about the situation.
  • Offer to brainstorm solutions with them (and stay unattached to what they do or don’t do).

4. Values and Life Purpose

Research shows that reflecting on meaningful values and life purpose serves as a buffer to stress. This strategy engages the pre-frontal cortex and gives us a broader context for our lives, a container for decision-making and a map for future direction.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Reflect on which of your values are being stepped on or need to be honored more fully. What can you do in this situation that honors one or more values?
  • Ask yourself what the bigger purpose is and/or how this might fit into your whole life and goals.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask them which of their values are being stepped on or need to be honored more fully. You can also reflect any values you might be hearing (such as if they say “I just feel so disrespected” they may have a value of respect). Ask what they could do in this situation that honors one or more of their values?
  • Ask them what the bigger purpose is and/or how this might fit into their whole life and goals.

5. Reframing

The act of reframing (also known as taking a new perspective or reappraisal) also activates the pre-frontal cortex, calming down our stress responses. Reappraisal has been touted by some neuroscientists as one of the most important skills a human being can develop for their mental health and life success.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Ask yourself what might be a different perspective on the issue or situation? What is another way of seeing it that feels more empowering?
  • If someone else is involved, try to stand in the other person’s shoes and look at things from there.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Ask them what might be a different perspective on the issue or situation? What is another way of seeing it that feels more empowering? Listen for little hints of what might be a more empowering perspective and reflect them back to the person. “It sounds like there is a bit of a silver lining that you are noticing….”

6. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is often an effective solution to any neuroscience challenge, from stress, to creativity, to improving memory, and even being more emotionally intelligent. Even just an attuned conversation with a close friend or relative (that is, one where you feel listened to and deeply heard) tends to bring people present into the moment and makes them pay attention to what is going on. Being present right now, rather than putting our attention on regrets from the past or worries about the future is a key stress management strategy. Additionally, developing a practice of meditation tends to build the skill and habit of being more present, and thus is a longer-term strategy for day-to-day stress management.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOURSELF

  • Notice your internal state without trying to change it.
  • Breathe in to the count of 6 and out to the count of 7. (This tends reset the brain to recovery mode.)
  • Develop a practice of meditation, even if it is only for only 5 minutes a day.

WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ANOTHER

  • Without being patronizing, encourage them to slow down and just breathe.

The Saboteur, the Inner Leader, and the Brain

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There is a classic tool in coaching that goes by various names: the Saboteur, the Gremlin, the Disempowering Voice, etc. It’s the idea that we have any number of negative voices in our head that can limit us by whispering (or shouting in some cases) that we aren’t good enough or some other other discouraging and habitual message. Many coaches are trained to help the client a) identify and even personify these voices; b) understand this is not “you,” it is a common human experience that is separate from who you really are; and c) limit their impact, either by sending the “saboteur” away or (for more aware and advanced coaches) learn what it is trying to say and work to integrate the wisdom. In addition, one very useful tool is to identify a powerful “inner leader” that is the contrasting voice to the saboteur and can speak from a calmer, wiser place when the saboteur gets activated.

Over the years, many students have asked us where the saboteur and inner leader are in the brain. In the old (but now debunked — see The Orchestra of Your Brain) model of the so-called “triune brain,” we might have said that the lower, less developed, more emotional brain is the source of negative self talk, while the higher, smarter, more evolved prefrontal cortex is the wise inner leader. A nice, easy handy explanation.

But the brain doesn’t actually work like that. There aren’t specific places in the brain that run positive or negative conversations, and the idea that the lower part of our brain takes over and runs roughshod over the higher part is far too simplistic. It’s more about systems and integration–or the lack thereof.

The brain is a whole bunch of systems, and all of the systems play a role in where we are operating from at that moment and what inner monologue is running. For example, the Default Mode Network (DMN) which is active in both dreaming and rumination, can activate in  a helpful mode (Wow, what could my life be?) as well as the “saboteur” mode (Oh my god, what if I can’t make enough money this year? What if I am a fraud? etc.). Basically, it is taking us to the past and the future, versus another network (Task Positive Network or TPN) that operates in the present. The TPN also can have its helpful and unhelpful aspects–sometimes our minds need to wander to access creativity and possibility, and holding absolute focus will not allow that. Helpful mode of the TPN has us getting things done and being present, unhelpful mode reduces all answers to that which can be seen and calculated and causes our creativity and motivation to simply dry up. And these are only two systems of a very complex brain.

At BEabove Leadership, we love the work of Dr. Dan Siegel for many reasons. For this topic, there are two significant ways we want to share. One, his view that integration is key to all aspects of health and effectiveness. Dr. Siegel defines integration as “the linkage of differentiated elements.” So–in my one (limited) example above of the DMN and TPN we a) learn to differentiate the two networks and b) learn to link the one that brings us presence (TPN) and the one that travels to the past and future (DMN). Then we can use both networks in a helpful way. If we venture too far into Default Mode where we start to worry about the future or regret the past, we can activate Task Positive by looking to see what can be done right now and getting right down to it. If we get too far into Task Positive, looking at just what is in front of us right now, thereby losing the heart and meaning of our lives, we can activate our Default Mode and reconnect to our dreams, values, and meaning.

Saboteurs, we believe, don’t live in one area of the brain, but become activated when one aspect of our human system becomes less integrated and is not well linked with its counterpart. This could be a TPN/DMN imbalance as illustrated above, or a skew in the partnership between our right and left hemisphere, a disconnect from messages from our body, as well as many other aspects of our human system.

We believe that what we sometimes call the “inner leader” also doesn’t live in one area of the brain, but is our observer ability to recognize and work with all our systems, creating more balance and integration. The second way we look to Dr. Siegel is his definition of the mind, which is more than the brain. Dr. Siegel defines the mind as “An embodied and relational process regulating the flow of energy and information.” That is, it includes the brain, but can’t be found in (or limited to) any one part of the brain, because it is — and we are — so much more. So–the strong inner leader, which I would call the mind, is regulating our flow, observing where we are, and adjusting as needed for greater effectiveness.

We think that the ideas of saboteurs and inner leaders (or whatever you might call them), can be very helpful for everyone, but would just want to highlight the following:

  • They don’t live in specific areas of the brain, but are the function of systems;
  • Saboteurs are NOT something to be gotten rid of, banished or destroyed, but balanced and integrated. We need to not think of them as wrong, per se, but an overbalancing of some natural human system; and
  • Through awareness and practice, we can strengthen both our connections between systems, as well our ability to recognize and regulate the flow of “energy and information.”